With Camera Crews and a Slick Studio, Christie’s $88 Million Evening Sale in London Felt Like a TV Show—Luckily, Buyers Tuned in

Buyers were asked to project their voices and "bid with purpose."

20th/21st Century: Evening Sale Including Thinking Italian auction at Christies King Street, London.

Christie’s London’s evening sale of 20th- and 21st-century art today showed signs of a market returning to normal. It brought in a total of £64.6 million ($88.3 million) across 40 lots—healthily within the pre-sale estimate of £45.6 million–£65.4 million ($62.7 million-$90 million). But the auction itself, the London house’s first major in-person sale with bidders back in the room, was a surreal experience.

For one thing, the “evening sale” took place at 2 p.m. U.K. time as Christie’s angled to catch bidders in Hong Kong after dinner and New Yorkers at the breakfast table. (The move paid off as only three lots ended up going to any of the 100 bidders present in the room.)

In the aftermath of the transition to online sales during lockdown, the salesroom has also become a slick studio operation. Cameramen counted guests in, and the auctioneer for the first half of the sale, the house’s global president Jussi Pylkkänen, encouraged bidders present in the room to “bid with purpose” for the sake of the cameras. A security guard clipped a sparkling Cartier bracelet onto the house’s head of postwar and contemporary art evening sales Tessa Lord.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Because it Hurts the Lungs (1986). Courtesy Christie's Images LTD. 2021.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Because it Hurts the Lungs (1986). Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd, 2021.

Frieze Week sales kicked off yesterday when Sotheby’s netted $90 million, buoyed by a new Banksy record for the artist’s infamous shredded work and hot competition for young artists, stoking hopes that London’s auction market is resurgent after a long period of lockdown. The house brought in a slightly more measured £64.5 million ($88.8 million) for its contemporary sale, which included eight postwar Italian masterpieces as part of its “Thinking Italian” auction.

Christie’s claimed its result today was up 18 percent from last October’s contemporary art evening sale and is in line with the results for the equivalent sale in 2019, which also brought in  £64.5 million ($79.6 million). (Unless otherwise noted, sale prices include the buyer’s premium; estimates do not.)

Today’s event sold 90 percent by lot, and 92 percent by value. Among the 40 lots offered(a 2012 work by Rudolf Stingel was withdrawn before the sale), four did not find buyers. Fourteen carried either in-house or third-party guarantees. 

Katharine Arnold, the house’s head of postwar and contemporary art in Europe, said in a post-sale press huddle that the result showed “we judged the season well.” She remarked that there was a 50-percent increase in the number of bidders under 40 compared to last year.

“That tells us that young people are coming to the sales and bidding actively and that Asia was very much online this evening,” Arnold said. Some 35 percent of registered bidders were from Asia (and bidders there snapped up works by George Condo and a Yayoi Kusama via specialist Elaine Kwok in Hong Kong).

Hurvin Anderson, <i>Audition</i>(1998). Courtesy Christie's Images LTD. 2021.

Hurvin Anderson, Audition(1998). Courtesy Christie’s Images LTD. 2021.

The top lot of the night was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1986 painting Because It Hurts the Lungs. It hammered at £7 million ($9.6 million) to a bidder represented by Alex Rotter in New York, at its low estimate. With fees, the price was £8.2 million ($11.2 million). It is thought to have been consigned by the Indonesian collector and Museum MACAN founder Haryonto Adikoesoemo. It last sold at Phillips New York in 2001 for $1.8 million.

The most exciting sale of the night may have been Hurvin Anderson’s 1998 work Audition. The painting, which was guaranteed in house ahead of the sale, hammered at £6.2 million ($8.5 million) against a pre-sale high estimate of £1.5 million ($2 million). With fees ($10.1 million), it more than double the U.K. artist’s previous auction record of £2.6 million ($3.5 million), achieved in 2017 at Christie’s London, according to the Artnet Price Database.

Following heated bidding from at least five bidders in the room, competing with buyers on the phones for nearly 11 minutes, it was at last secured by a bidder in the U.S through specialist Jennifer Wright, the house’s vice president and client relationship director in New York.

Other lots of note included a collection of three NFTs, one Bored Ape Yacht Club edition and two Mutant Ape Yacht Clubs, which carried an estimate of £800,000 to £1.2 million ($1.1 million–$1.6 million). It marked the first time the house has offered an NFT in Europe, and the lot hammered on its low estimate to a bidder in the room, who was identified by art market writer Melanie Gerlis as Kosta Kantchev, cofounder of the cryptobank Nexo Finance, which has an NFT fund. 

Many observers were closely watching the performance of a Banksy diptych featuring the artist’s iconic Girl With Balloon. Banksy’s ballooning market cracked the top five biggest sellers at auction in the first half of this year. But this diminutive diptych, which carried a third-party guarantee, hammered on its low estimate of £2.5 million ($3.4 million).

Hilary Pecis, <i>Kaba on a Chair</i> (2019). Courtesy Christie's Images LTD. 2021.

Hilary Pecis, Kaba on a Chair (2019). Courtesy Christie’s Images LTD. 2021.

Tessa Lord remarked after the sale that she was “thrilled” with the results, which were particularly strong for women artists. Cecily Brown’s 2019 abstraction There’ll be bluebirds hammered at £2.9 million ($3.9 million) against a pre-sale upper estimate of £700,000 ($963,000). It was donated by the artist and her gallery Thomas Dane, with proceeds going to benefit ClientEarth.

There was also some competitive bidding on the two works by Yayoi Kusama (both carried third-party guarantees and hammered above their high estimates), and Bridget Riley’s Halcyon 2, formerly owned by the late Bermuda-based collector Robin Judah, which was guaranteed in house and hammered just above its high estimate at £2.15 million ($2.96 million) via Katharine Arnold.

Less present was the heated demand for the next generation of auction stars we have come to expect in evening sales. While rising star Emily Mae Smith did see a strong result for one of her works, hammering at £95,000 ($130,000), nearly five times its £20,000 low estimate (via specialist Barrett White in New York), there was a somewhat disappointing result for Julie Curtiss’s 2017 Hairy Hat, which hammered on its £200,000 ($275,000) high estimate to an absentee bidder.

There was a notable sale for a work by rising market star Hilary Pecis, whose 2019 work Kaba on a Chair hammered at £180,000 ($247,000) via Swiss specialist Garrett Landolt (buoyed to £225,000 / $307,575 with fees) making it her second-highest price at auction yet. (Her record stands at £340,300 ($468,724) set during Sotheby’s London day sale in July.) 

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